The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture)

Summary:  a quick look at the basis of America’s post-WWII grand strategy, and why it no longer works.  Eighth in a series of notes on this topic.

The world is, as it has always been, a maelstrom of fear, hatred, and violence.  After WWII American’s dreamed of a new world, one that was not only safe for us but better for everyone.  To achieve this we built bases around the world, amassed military force equal in some respects to those of all other nations’ combined, and fought numerous wars – large and small.

With hindsight we can see that the opportunity to remake the world existed only for a golden moment in 1945.  With our massive military machine, especially our dominance in the air AND as the sole nuclear power, we could have established a Pax Americana.  By 1960 we could have had space platforms armed with atomic weapons enforcing peace between states.  That might have allowed civilization (“human rights”), and prosperity (capitalism) to spread throughout the world.

For better or worse – who can say? – we took a softer path.

America’s strategy since 1990, and especially since 2001

What do we find if we “deconstruct” America’s strategy by examining our actions (not words)?  America prefers strategies that have some combination of the following characteristics:

  1. We must take the leading role.  Allies must be followers.
  2. Our plans must have a dynamic, kinetic nature.  The best defense is a strong offense.  No passive strategies for America; we aggressively interfere in other lands.  The soft form of Empire.
  3. Our diplomacy often uses or threaten to use our massive military machine, a pillar of American power.  After all, we borrowed hundreds of billions from Asian central banks to build it, so it must be part of the solution.  Since we insist on using a hammer, every problem must be a nail.
  4. Politicians and bureaucrats craft our strategy, so a large and dominant state must be the solution.  For example, the every-growing and more intrusive “Homeland Security” forces – and fewer rights for citizens.

Despite its successes since WWII, the dream has now turned sour.  This strategy increasingly looks like a formula for catastrophic defeat. 

  1. It multiplies enemies and alienates friends around an increasingly small world.
  2. It requires efforts beyond our resources, as if we insanely seek to follow Paul Kennedy’s script for “imperial overstretch” described in the Decline and Fall of Great Powers.  Like the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, we are omnipotent in name only — powerful only so long as we get loans from our Asian and OPEC bankers (the 21st century version of the great medieval banking families, such as the Fuggers).
  3. Instead of a bipartisan policy for national security, growing government power becomes a divisive issue.  The very name “Homeland Security” evokes memories of foreign tyrannies.  Its actions alienate large elements of population.
  4. An increasingly centralized structure decreases our security and stability.  Decentralized networks make fuller use of our resources, respond faster, and inherently have more stability.

Worst of all, one of the pillars of our power has washed away.

Our Strong Military is a delusion

Yes! where is he, the champion and the child
Of all that’s great or little, wise or wild;
Whose game was empires, and whose stakes were thrones;
Whose table earth — whose dice were human bones?
Behold the grand result in yon lone isle,
And, as thy nature urges, weep or smile.
Sigh to behold the eagle’s lofty rage
Reduced to nibble at his narrow cage
— Excerpt from “The Age of Bronze” by Lord Byron

If the value of something is what it costs, our military would be omnipotent.  Unfortunately this is not so in any field, least of all in war.  In fact our military is as obsolete as medieval knights in the age of gunpowder, in both cases despite their training, equipment, bravery, and dedication.  None of these can overcome failure to adapt by the people at the top of the military hierarchy. 

Reluctance to change in the face of obsolescence is a characteristic of modern America, which has – perhaps inevitability — infected military.  Everyone knows the pattern, so only a brief description is needed.

  1. Our automobile companies once dominated the world; now they frantically sell assets to avoid bankruptcy.  They specialize in large gas-guzzling vehicles, while foreign companies earn fortunes building small or luxury cars.
  2. We almost invented modern technology.  Now we are a net importer of high-tech goods.  The offices of Silicon Valley start-ups house managers, attorneys, and financers … with the hard work done in Asia.

Similarly, America (to identify with our military) is invincible in types of wars no serious enemy will fight in the 21st Century.  Hence its record since WWII of one draw (Korea), one loss (Vietnam), no wins.  Iraq will soon change the loss column to “two”, esp. if one considers victory to be attainment of strategic goals at a proportionate cost.

We can beat small fry (e.g., Panama, Grenada) and cripples (e.g., the Iraq Army, twice).  Our pride in these victories is instructive, especially the last two — wins over a moronically led and poorly equipped army of mostly unwilling to fight conscripts — an army gutted in by the insane ferocity of the 1980-88 war with Iran, and later by UN sanctions.

Since the Defenese and the National Interest site already has many fine articles about the structural problems of the US military, this paper will only briefly describe two aspects of the problem.

1.  We have a military too expensive to use in anything but a life and death struggle, like WWII.

To survive lions cannot burn more calories in the chase than they gain from their prey. Wars too must have some rational equivalence between costs and benefit.  The Iraq War, the conquest and occupation of a relatively small nation, has costs to date far exceeding any imaginable gain.  Most estimates range around $1 trillion, including the long tail of pension/disability costs and replacement of equipment (the cost is uncertain, as even DoD accountants admit their systems cannot produce reliable numbers).

2. We have a military that cannot fight and win the most common wars of our era.

While analysis and proof of this is beyond the scope of this post, one vignette illustrates it.  US forces roll up to Baghdad, invincible on the field of battle, occupy it and wait for orders.  The capitol falls into disorder, with looting and burning of key infrastructure.  The best educated generals in the history of the world failed to prepare for one of the most common scenarios in military history, and watched as an excellent victory tipped over to what will probably be a crushing defeat. 

Our military is a full member of 21st Century American society – no separate military culture here – so they can produce industrial-grade excuses suitable for a Superpower, featuring the keynote of the new American anthem:  “It’s not our fault.”  The experts at RAND said it well…

While it can be argued that U.S. military planners could not have been expected to anticipate the emergence of an insurgency any more than they could have foreseen the widespread disorders, looting, and random violence that followed the fall of Baghdad, that is precisely the nub of the problem. The fact that military planners apparently didn’t consider the possibility that sustained and organized resistance could gather momentum and transform itself into an insurgency reflects a pathology that has long affected governments and militaries everywhere.
— “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq“, Bruce Hoffman, RAND (2004)

RAND’s sponsors likely appreciate the diplomatic phrasing “while it can be argued”.  Much nicer than suggesting that for the next war our generals briefing books include DVDs of “War and Peace” and “Gone with the Wind”, to remind them of what often happens following the fall of cities.

In summary, while it can seldom win in the age of 4GW, nor adequately defend us against 4GW threats, our military – as now configured — can make us weaker.  By its crushing cost and by its misuse, as we see today in the Middle East.

It gets worse

Other states have developed alternatives tactics to overcome our strengths.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance are:

Other posts about grand strategy:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy   (31 January 2006)
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy   (1 March 2006)
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW   (4 January 2007)
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War”   (24 July 2007)
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy?   (28 October 2007)
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I  (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008)
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II  (14 June 2008)
  8. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past  (30 June 2008)
  9. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris  (1 July 2008)
  10. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles  (2 July 2008)

13 thoughts on “The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture)”

  1. “Other states have developed alternatives tactics to overcome our strengths.”

    There is some darkness on the horizon with this. From some of the experts I’ve interviewed around the DC, unexpected countries are most likely building asymmetric forces in some unexpected ways… not just like Iran’s swarm boats, but also Hezbollah-like forces, proxy pirates, and so on. The Hegemonic Stability Theory doesn’t really account for these sorts of things.
    Fabius Maximus replies: IMO, the Hegemonic Stability Theory explains nothing. Rather, the existance of a hegemon tends to impel other states to oppose it.

    The UK hegemony is atypical in many repects. First it was never a hegemon in its core region (i.e., Europe). Second, it was a global hegemon relatively briefly — perhaps 1860 – 1910 (dating its fall as hegemon to the 1930’s is absurd, as does Wikipedia and others).

  2. William RAISER

    My frustration is that the vast majority of Americans are unaware of the kinds of things you describe. That ignorance seems also to exist in those in power. How do we develop alternative paths forward when we are ignorant of the basics of our current position. How do I get to New York from Des Moines when I think I’m in Dallas?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why should the American people be familiar with 4GW? That’s a technical subject, like medicine. That’s why we have this vast body of people in the State and Defense Departments. If the experts on the public payroll do not understand, why should the public?

  3. Good post, I have nothing to add other than the solution appears very bleak. No way Congress will take the necessary steps to reform how it addresses national security, let alone the development of a new grand strategy by either party.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That seems a little too bleak, IMO. New stresses and new people in power both create new perspectives. And the US will likely experience both in the next few years.

  4. The military hegemony of the U.S. can serve one useful purpose, and that is to prevent nation states from invading one another – like in the 1991 Gulf War. What it shouldn’t be used for is invading weaker states for “nation building”. It makes the U.S. look like an unsympathetic bully and its enemies look like brave, sympathetic underdogs. Anyway as Iraq shows nation building is very, very difficult.

  5. I take it that your vision of the possibility of imposing global order (between 1945 and 1960) with massive military might, space platforms and a monopoly of nuclear weaponry — was a joke. How would that form of military totalitarianism be any different in consequences than where we are now?

    Instability is spawned by inequality. Resistance occurs when inequality is endemic and desperate. Inequality is the result of our economic system. As we have shown in the past eight years, desperate people are not intimidated by long-distance bombing.

    The fix isn’t military — it’s economic and ethical (spiritual, if you like.)
    Fabius Maximus replies: “was a joke.” Why do you say that? It was physically powerful. The danger in this was spiritual, that wielding this power would corrupt America.

    ” military totalitarianism be any different in consequences than where we are now” Are you kidding? An absolute (if benign, with light touch and limited goals) military rule by American has little resemblence to the current multi-polar regime, let alone to the Cold War era.

    Perhaps the primary difference is that under a true Empire the subjects pay for the military force that controls them. Taxation is among the ultimate indicators of power. That the US is going broke under the burden of its military spending is an indicator of its ineffectiveness (or weak application). We may be the world’s “peacekeepers”, but the world has no interest in paying for this “service” we provide.

  6. Ralph Hitchens

    “The world is, as it has always been, a maelstrom of fear, hatred, and violence.” Yes and no, and some would argue more no than yes, e.g., Tom Barnett, speaking at Fort Leavenworth last year: “Do not believe the hype about the age of unending war. It’s complete nonsense. We’ve had more poverty reduction in the last 25 years than in the previous 500. … We’ve never had a global economy so big, so robust, facing such a huge expansion as the addition of a billion people with disposable income in the next 10 to 15 years. … We’ve never had peace as widespread as we’ve got it right now. On a per capita basis, less people are involved in war than we’ve ever seen. We’ve never been more peaceful than right now. So the terrorism, the transnational, the non-state actors is what’s left.”

    So your analysis, while cogent in many respects (right on re. a military that’s “too expensive” and “cannot fight and win the most common wars of our era”), is a bit more doom & gloom than I’m prepared to accommodate. Like that common criticism of generals in bygone eras who always prepared too much for the last war, I think you’re focusing too much attention on the present one in Iraq. We’ve been led by lunatics for the last few years, and Iraq is a disastrous abberation that, fortunately, won’t count too much in the grand scheme of things.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is a metaphor, not intended as a precise or quantitative description of the world. There are two sides to every coin. Barnett is, of course, quite correct about economics. The per capita economic growth of the past five years might exceed anything seen since the invention of agriculture.

    But the geopolitica situation of the world is another matter, largely dominated by might over right. I was, in other words, saying that fear, hatred, and violence are powerful forces in the post-WWII world. Can anyone say otherwise? Consider the events in Latin America and Africa — plus other spots: Cambodia’s near genocide , the 16-year long Vietnam War, Mao’s million-man march to death, and Iraq (during and after Saddam). Plus the various close brushes with atomic warfare.

  7. Great post! It is as succinct a presentation of the USA’s strategic challenge/dilemma as I can recall seeing.

    The problem, however, is far more than a military one. It goes to the heart of the stance we in our country take in regard to our relationships with the rest of the world, a stance that is driven to a large extent by what is going on in aspects of our domestic culture that only indirectly related to national security affairs. There are some provocative writings coming out of the progressive side of the spectrum that are looking under these rocks, and since it’s probably safe to assume that at least a plurality of readers of this blog, and perhaps a majority, are or were in the national security business full time and thus tend to lean more toward the right than the left, you may not have encountered them. Yet I think you may find them worth a look.

    Two books, especially, come to mind. The first is The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein. She argues that since before World War II the US has sought to indenture as much of the rest of the world as possible to American interests economically so as to enforce other countries’ support of US international political interests. In doing so we went way beyond passive abetting the brutal repression that many of our allied leaders engaged in and in more than a few cases instigated it, but our feel-good media did their part in glossing over our complicity. So now that we’re encountering the blowback from decades of hypocrisy, the vast clueless majority of American people are mystified as to why we’re so disliked. She is scathing about the roles played by several American universities in these affairs, especially the Economics Department of the University of Chicago. She asserts, for example, that the late Milton Friedman and friends were far more than a distant inspiration for the draconian economic policies installed by the instigators of the 1973 coup.

    The other book addresses similar issues, but less directly and from a different direction. Its main subject is a religious movement that has become extremely influential since its founding about 70 years ago, but which remains largely invisible to the general public. The book is The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet. This organization, according to the author, is little interested in specifics of religious doctrine. Instead their objective is power, and the organizational tactics they employ deliberately derive from those used by the likes of Communism under Lenin and Stalin, and Fascism under Mussolini and Hitler. The group’s goals are as vague as its theology, but they boil down to two things: bringing the world, including the United States under the benevolent “leadership” of people guided by their personal relationships with Jesus, and spreading the American version of capitalism as the primary means of achieving the first goal. In following this path, The Family, in it’s outreach to movers and shakers in foreign countries has climbed in bed with some of the nastiest people out there. The end justifies the means.

    People coming from the national security world who see a need to do a major repositioning of our stance in it, and a corresponding re-mapping of our military capabilities, might do well to reach out to some of these folks in the progressive community. It’s time to realize that the differences growing out of the Vietnam era no longer apply.

  8. “An absolute (if benign, with light touch and limited goals) military rule by America. . .”

    Sorry, I thought that was a joke! Now, what size military, and what degree of surveillance, would it have taken to control the globe’s three billion people? I suppose you could do it with a sufficient reign of psycological terror, using periodic atomic detonations in random third world cities to send the message. That could indeed be a bit of a spiritual burden for Americans!
    Fabius Maximus replies: Good question, as I was not specific in this post. I meant that we could have attempted to prevent state to state wars. World Peace. While not sufficient to make Earth like Heaven, it would have produced many benefits. Far less military spending, to name just one.

    If, if, if we could have done it (probable) without being corrupted (far less likely).

    Robert Heinlein wrote several stories about this scenario, the creation of the “Space Patrol.”

    Solution Unsatisfactory” (1940), “The Long Watch” (1948), “Space Cadet” (1948)

  9. Ralph Hitchens

    Fab Max, I guess it all boils down to how far in time you want to extend your framework of the “post-WWII world.” Pretty much everything you cited (Vietnam, Killing Fields, Mao’s “march to death”) is ancient history. Back then we had a bipolar world and a great deal of associated conflict; now we have something else. (I confess, I still like “the end of History.”)
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, the time scale does matter. This article looks at the post-WWII era in the light of what might have done at its end — a road not taken.

    A few more points:

    (1) Events that happened a few generations ago are “ancient history”? That seems a somewhat narrow perspective.

    (2) Were the internal turmoils in Cambodia and China the result of the bipolar Cold War? Are such things possible now that history has ended? Looks like it is, considering the 2 million or so dead in the recent Congo war, not to mention Sudan and Rwanda.

    (3) We might be at “the end of history”. Or “war” might be on rest break, like the Long Peace (1815 – 1914) following the fall of Napoleon. Folks knew massive, long war was impossible in 1914. The major power outlawed war in 1928 (Kellogg-Briand Pact). I suggest keeping the Champaign on ice; don’t pop the cork until we have a bit more evidence that peace reigns.

  10. Excellent post. The militarization of America appears to be progressively corrupting our society, creating an “us against them” mentality in police who get grants to use military technology (like the new LRAD sonic crowd-control weaponry and the military “active denial system” microwave pain ray) and military tactics (SWAT) against civilians. When civilians get treated by their government as the enemy, they begin to think of themselves that way.

    This ironically plays into the very trend Martin Van Creveld and William S. Lind have remarked upon, namely, that the 21st century is the era of the loss of legitimacy of the modern nation-state. A citizen on a bike tackled, tasered, handcuffed and arrested by a police officer for a non-working bicycle light becomes a citizen with growing doubts in the legitimacy of state authority.

    That’s just one example. More to the point, drug asset forfeiture laws used to legally sieze assets without filing charges are bad enough — but when this becomes the sole source of funding of a police organization, the line twixt highway robbers and cops gets blurry. And when you get extreme examples of injustice, like the DEA using asset forfeiture laws to confiscate a grandmother’s house because her grandson hid a couple of marijuana plants in the basement, citizens start to lose faith in their government entirely.

    Nowadays I like to play a little game and take the latest announcements of Pentagon technology, like UAVs armed with sniper rifles, or active denial pain rays mounted on humvees in Brooklyn, or sophisticated home-made IEDs used by insurgents in Iraq to take out M1A1 Abrams tanks, and ask myself: What happens when this stuff gets used on the street by the Crips and the Bloods against the LAPD? Or by the Mexican drug cartels against the border patrol?

    You know it’s coming. There’s nothing exotic about a UAV — it’s just a cheap lightweight fuselage with easily-available remote controls built in. Putting a remote controlled camera and gun in it isn’t that hard, given today’s technology.

    So what happens when the Mexican drug cartels start assassinating DEA administrators using UAVs? What happens when MS-13 gang starts taking out police cars with IEDs as retaliation for gang crackdowns? What happens when street protestors aim teraherz pain rays back at the police who are trying to shove the protestors into a caged-in designated free speech zone?

    Nobody seems to be asking these questions. Especially the armchair warriors pushing for more militarization of our society.

    A bloated military budget accelerates the militarization of all aspects of society, as REAL ID and other Orwellian laws have shown, leading to incidents like this and this. This in turn only serves to accelerate the collapse of legitimacy of the American government, as increasingly defiant local laws which contravene federal edicts have shown.

    What’s especially striking to me is the remarkable fact that the 3 tactics William S. Lind identifies for 4GW groups, namely, (1) destroying infrastructure, (2) chronic crime and coercion, and (3) government destablization by means of decimation of the national guard & intimidation of anyone critical of the guerillas, are all now being done by the U.S. state and federal government doestically.

    Think about it: U.S. state and federal governments are destroying our infrastructure by letting it fall apart. U.S. government agencies now routinely break the law and violate the constitution, acting like criminals themselves. Meanwhile, the Iraq war is destroying the U.S. national guard. And any American citizens who protest get brutalized or intimidated and forced into caged areas out of public view. It’s almost as though the U.S. government has decided to act like 4GW guerillas against it own citizenry, albeit in a kinder gentler way.

  11. To mclaren: why do things seem so similar to those scenes in the movie “Robocop”?
    Fabius Maximus replies: I wonder how much of what he says is correct, and how much of what is correct is also new (rather than part of normal American expericne). But unfortunately the decay in our spirit of liberty is all to true. I have some posts on this going up in the next few days. Read this for a warm-up: “Learned Helplessness“, posted at Amygdala, 15 July 2008. Preferably while waiting in a long line at the airport to undergo pointless and intrusive searches. We are undergoing training to become serfs.

  12. “Learned Helplessness”. Kinda reminds me of the tactics utilized by the country where I grew up in…

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